By Ndidi Chukwu
Malnutrition remains a great challenge in Nigeria particularly for mothers and children. It occurs when people consistently do not consume or absorb the right amounts and types of food and essential nutrients.
It contributes to the death of about half a million children each year. It also imposes a staggering cost to the nation’s economy.
The main indicator of childhood malnutrition is stunting, when children are too short for their age. Stunting results to poor physical growth and brain development and prevents children from living up to their full potential. 1 out of every 2 child deaths is attributed to malnutrition, while well over 11 million children in Nigeria are stunted.
Lack of food Security is to a large proportion a major cause of malnutrition. Available data from the 2013 National Demographic Health Survey (NDHS) shows that more than half of the Nigerian population, especially women and children, live in severe social deprivation, and many households are food insecure.
Globally, Nigeria accounts for 13% of child deaths, according to UNICEF’s Nutrition Chief in Nigeria, Arjan de Gwat infant deaths are caused by many factors but malnutrition contributes to high rates of illness and deaths with Prevalence of diarrhoea, fever, and acute respiratory tract infection among children at 10%, 13% and 2% respectively. He also said that 75% of children are not fully vaccinated against childhood illnesses and 39% of households do not have access to an improved source of drinking water while 70% of households do not have an improved toilet facility that is not shared with other households.
Each year about 1 million Nigerian children die before their 5th birthday, (NDHS) report says that malnutrition contributes to almost half of these deaths. The rate of stunting in Nigeria has stagnated for more than a decade. About 2 in 5 Nigerian children are stunted, with rates varying throughout the country. For Underweight, almost 30 per cent of children in Nigeria are affected and will not weigh enough for their age. The percentage of children, who are wasted, or too thin for their height, have steadily increased over the last decade rising from 11 percent in 2003 to 18 percent in 2013.
Ten year (10) old Divine Doahuah, a primary six pupil of LEA Primary School, Wuse Zone 6, Abuja, wants to be a pilot by the time he is 25 years old. His dream is to help Nigerian pilots to end the bad news of plane crashes, he said, “when I grow up I will be a pilot, that time there will be no more plane crashes in Nigeria”. Divine has given himself another 15 years to achieve his big dream. One special thing he likes doing is “eating good meal”, and when asked what is a good meal, he replied “balanced diet”. Divine says “I will like to be eating if they share food in school, food will give me strength”. He simply screamed “yes!” when he heard food will be shared during school hours.
Fatima Muhammad a 14 years old who aspires to be a nurse when she is 30 years old and a motivational speaker in the same class with Divine said “yes I will feel happy, the food will give me energy to study, and it will help me to learn because anytime I am hungry will not be able to learn. If I eat everyday in the school I will be a strong and intelligent girl”
Divine and Fatima are expecting to be among the beneficiaries of Nigeria’s school feeding policy starting in 2016, if the presidential budget which allocated funds specifically for school feeding is considered important, passed, assented and implemented by Nigeria’s legislators and funds allocated for this purpose are judiciously used to feed Nigerian Children.
According to the Headmistress of the LEA Primary School, Wuse Zone 6, Abuja, Ahmed Hajarat said, School feeding will not only address malnutrition, but will help the nation to draw more children back to school while the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) current data suggests, over 10.5 million Nigerian Children are out of school.
She further said “the free school feeding was introduced sometime in rural schools, the reason is that some of these rural parents don’t always allow their children to come to school, the policy went a long way to attract the children to school, because some of them that do not have food to eat will not come to school because they have a place to eat, that will entice them to come to school, it is good that they are going to start it again because it will really go along way especially if the concentration is in rural area where we have much of poverty. If they can do it there it will really encourage the children to go to school”
Similarly, in a round-table meeting for Directors of relevant MDAs for strategies to secure sustainable commitment of the federal government to nutrition funding, organised by Save the Children in Kaduna, Dr Olutayo Adeyemi of Food and Agricultural organisation of the United Nations said, in Nigeria, Food Consumption Score is unacceptable in 29% of the poorest households and 15% of the richest households.
She said the cconsumption of animal products, legumes/nuts/seeds, and fruits are particularly low, and Nigerian children have poor diet quality, where 81% do not have minimum dietary diversity, 42% do not have minimum meal frequency, 65% of children do not consume iron-rich foods, 48% of children do not consume Vitamin A rich foods and only 10% of the population of Nigerian Children have minimum acceptable diets.
For Economic growth, Gwat said “Malnutrition results in economic losses from reduced education potential and attainment, reduced income, investments foregone due to spending on health, and 1.5 billion U.S. dollars of GDP lost annually in Nigeria due to vitamin and mineral deficiencies alone”
She then added that to ensure balanced meals are made available to the Nigerian Children, “They should be able to advice on the kind of food they should be able to bring to the school, and the people that will prepare the food as well. Most schools can build kitchen and have the food prepared where it can be monitored and supervised by the head teacher, then an external monitor can always visit to check if it is done”
“Follow up is the greatest challenge and what is killing us in this country, if we are able to follow up activities that are being given to some people it will go a long way” said Hajarat who said the school feeding programme if implemented will address spread of diseases and end malnutrition in school children.
Simply put, if Divine and Fatima, like all Nigerian children could have access to balanced diet from the school feeding project, each Nigerian child will make a valuable contribution to the growth of the nation’s economy in the nearest future, this is only achievable if the Nigerian government could see the need in investing in its beautiful children.